Giacomo Puccini
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

This is a revival of director Christopher Alden’s 2002 production, notorious not so much for its updating of the setting as for its radical stripping away of any shreds of Romantic grandeur/illusion from the story. Opera North regularly performs seasons in Newcastle and has an extremely loyal audience. They have brought this production to the city before and, given how popular Puccini’s work is, I was amazed to find hard-core fans saying that they wouldn’t be bothering to see this one again. Now I understand why.

It’s a long-gone argument that opera is about the singing and the story can go hang. Let’s admit it, if you tried to perform a non-musical drama from most classic librettos, you’d have precious little to work with. However, even the most trite of operatic plots does usually have some internal logic – and that does have a bit of a tendency to work in direct conjunction with the music. Even if you give a concert performance, the plot is there as an unseen framework. Of course it doesn’t have to remain set in aspic – you can update Shakespeare, you can update opera, and Tosca adapts itself particularly well to such a process. For one thing, on an historical scale it scarcely needs updating. Put aside the specifics and the political situation in Rome during 1800 would scarcely feel unfamiliar somewhere in the world today. Sardou already knew that when he wrote the non-musical drama La Tosca for the audiences of 1887, as did Puccini with the opera in 1900. There are big issues here concerning not so much politics as the roles of personal loyalty, passion and honour under impossible circumstances. Replace Tosca’s Empire-line gown with jeans and you haven’t effected much of a change. Replace the internal logic of a story where certain games of jealousy, cruelty and misplaced trust can be played out to an end as absurd as it is tragic, and you’ve kicked away the platform you were standing on.

Yes, I know what this is supposed to be doing. The setting, with its posters for the Forza Italia party, thumps home the idea of a modern world where corruption and political hypocrisy are taken for granted to such an extent that we expect and ignore them. The final act plays out in Tosca’s tortured mind, denying us any chance of the cathartic, the grand or even the dramatic. This is meant to deny us entry to any theatrical comfort zone, to take it all up close and personal in a way that the music apparently can’t do without such a radical change of production style. Oddly enough, I’ve always found that the music took me there quite effectively. The contrast between Tosca’s theatrical world of grand gestures, emotional peaks and showy religiosity and a harsh reality which pays lip-service to all her expectations while able to undercut them at a stroke, is already inherent in play and opera. This really is a shabby little shocker because it constantly peels back the corner of Tosca’s expectations to reveal something truly disgusting beneath – but it does allow her (and Cavaradossi and the Marchesa and Angelotti) some chance to articulate, by words, actions and arias, other possibilities. That’s why it’s so poignant, that’s why some of the original audience found it offensive. The high ideals here are not just doomed (that’s hardly original) but muddled by passion, messed about by trivial circumstances, rendered inappropriate by emotional short-sightedness.

So if that’s already there, what has been revealed by this staging? Honestly, the first act is always something of a muddle, as we come into the middle of a plot which itself is unfolding in the middle of a church service with added political visibility while an artist is distracted by a beautiful woman who isn’t his famous-singer mistress whose piety and passion can be overwhelmed by her jealousy which is misplaced because the beautiful woman is actually trying to help her political prisoner brother escape from the clutches of Scarpia who sees Tosca as his next conquest while being happy to utilise her vocal talents to consolidate the new status quo, the implications of which don’t seem to have entered her head. There’s also a comic sacristan, some children, a woman’s disguise for a man and a fan bearing a fatally identifiable family crest. Now take this and make it even more difficult to grasp. We really shouldn’t be trying to work out where and when we are, or how a scruffy church basement (though conveniently complete with full-scale confessional for the required moments where things must happen out of sight) will house the necessarily public nature of events to follow (it doesn’t – and the service is replaced by a lottery game.)

Acts 2 and 3 (here run together – everything takes place in the same setting) suffer less because they are simpler in structure and give the singers more chance for those direct confrontations at which Puccini excels. One couldn’t wish for a more effective Tosca than Takesha Meshe Kizart, who can make the big, confident flourishes of emotion whereby the character is set up, and then reveal an inner fragility as she has to admit her own powerlessness. She looked divine and would doubtless have flung herself magnificently from the Castel Sant’Angelo in that absurd and terrifying moment of self-definition that Puccini demands – only here she sunk down the wall a bit, ho hum. Rafael Rojas was warm-voiced and engaging, giving the necessary sense of a largely interiorised man pushed out into circumstances far from his natural bent and desperately trying to do the right thing. Robert Hayward’s Scarpia provided a magnificent study of a Dr. Strangelove-style obsessive, wallowing in the power that was actually eating him alive. When one of the henchmen spat on his corpse it was a magnificently appropriate piece of stagecraft in a production that otherwise seemed puritanically didactic in its approach – thou shalt not engage with the drama. Singing and characterisation floated free of a mess of a staging that couldn’t let anything speak for itself and seemed to demonstrate a bewilderingly perverse mistrust of Puccini’s choice of story. Let it play out as written and I think you’ll find it works, even for a modern audience, without the need for this level of self-indulgent iconoclasm.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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